Dissent, squabbles: migrant crisis takes toll on EU evermore

BRUSSELS -- The well-trodden path that has led hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants into the European Union's heartland is increasingly eating at the core of the once-tight bloc.

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As destination countries unilaterally move to restrict new entries, others further back on the route have panicked that people will get stuck within their borders and have started taking their own actions, showing little concern for co-ordinating with their EU partners.

"Right now the unity of the Union and lives -- human lives -- are at stake," said the EU's migration chief Dimitris Avramopoulos as he entered Thursday's meeting of the 28 interior ministers to assess the rapidly deteriorating situation.

The fear of crumbling unity has spread like wildfire throughout the EU over recent days: a common response to the migration crisis is seen as a Litmus test for the bloc.

The impact of increasing go-it-alone actions on border restrictions and imposition of quotas was evident on the ground Thursday when thousands of refugees and other migrants were stranded across Greece, with hundreds having waited in buses along the country's main north-south highway for roughly two days.

The bottleneck came after Macedonia severely restricted the number of people it is allowing to cross and continue their northward journey toward more prosperous European countries, in response to similar actions by countries further along the route.

Greek Deputy Interior Minister Ioannis Mouzalas was angry about a meeting Wednesday in Vienna where Austria and many of its southern neighbours agreed to tighter border controls and warned that they may have to shut their doors entirely. On Thursday, Greece recalled its ambassador to Athens in protest at the talks.

The border closures would squeeze Greece in between the Balkan nations to the north and Turkey, where most of the refugees come from. With a full closure, Greece reception capacity could become overwhelmed in days.

NATO is beginning a surveillance mission in the waters between Greece and Turkey and its decision to return any rescued migrants to Turkey could help relieve some pressure on Greek reception centres.

But Mouzalas said his nation refuses to become "a warehouse of souls" and said that in the wake of border restrictions that were not part of common EU decisions, "Greece too, can take unilateral action," threatening to block decisions at a March 7 EU migration summit if sharing of the refugee burden is not made obligatory for member states.

Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias recalled the ambassador "in order to safeguard the friendly relations between the states and the people of Greece and Austria," a statement said.

It is the sort of unraveling of unity that EU President Donald Tusk has been warning about for weeks now but which the EU seems to be unable to stop.

Another indication of just how far the issue has reached is the discord Belgium and France, two founding nations of the bloc who have almost always stood side-by-side in the 60-year history of the union.

On Thursday, France's interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve criticized its northern neighbour for tightening border controls over concerns about a flood of migrants from a camp in France.

Belgium has sent up to 290 extra police officers to their common border after French authorities moved to close a migrant camp in Calais.

Cazeneuve described Belgium's move as "a strange decision" and rejected fears that hundreds of migrants would move into Belgium.

Meanwhile in Germany -- the destination for many of the migrants -- lawmakers on Thursday approved a package of measures meant to speed up migrant processing and cut the number of newcomers.

The package foresees special centres being set up to quickly process migrants who have little realistic chance of winning asylum and means that some asylum-seekers -- likely including some Syrians -- will have to wait longer to bring relatives to Germany.

Germany registered nearly 1.1 million people as asylum seekers last year and officials are keen to ensure that the number is lower this year.

Lawmakers also approved plans to amend laws to increase the deportation of foreigners convicted of crimes.

The EU's executive Commission also said Thursday that it fails to understand how Hungary's call for a national referendum on the EU's plan for each member to get a mandatory quota of refugees from Greece and Italy could affect a decision that has already been legally made by all EU nations.

The EU plans to share 160,000 migrants arriving in overburdened Greece and Italy over two years. But so far, barely 600 people have been relocated, and only some EU nations have offered places for them -- fewer than 5,000 spots in all.


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